By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

A few hours due north of NYC or northwest of Boston – depending on how you’re oriented – are some of the most pristine and beautiful woodlands imaginable.

Boreas Ponds (Photo: The Nature Conservancy)

The Adirondacks region – famous as a getaway for fall foliage sightseers, hikers, skiers, hunters and fisherman – encompasses hundreds of lakes, mountains and miles of rich woodland habitat.  It’s territory that cradles wildlife, from trout to moose, and gives birth to the Hudson River.

At its center, the 6-million-acres Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected park in the nation, bigger than the Yellowstone, Everglades and Grand Canyon national parks.

Now, as the result of a land use agreement between The Nature Conservancy and the state of New York announced last week, even more of this unique region will be protected from harmful development. The deal between the Conservancy and the state will preserve 89,000 acres for recreational uses and sustainable forestry, saving local jobs and tourism opportunities, but keeping out potentially harmful development that would subdivide and upset the ecological health of the region.

Michael Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, called the arrangement a dual victory for economic development and nature preservation, which in this region are not mutually exclusive goals.

The land involved, which already sustains about 800 jobs in timbering, will expand public access to recreational areas, but at the same time, protect the forests and waterways that make the area a magnet for visitors, Carr said.

Keeping a balance between economic and ecological needs will help the region thrive, he said, and not fall victim to inappropriate or haphazard development that could harm the local communities.

“That’s the magic of this transaction. And the real vision. I think this is visionary work by the state of New York, and the communities and The Nature Conservancy,” Carr said in an interview Friday.

A land deal the size of 11 Manhattans

The 89,000 acres is already owned and managed under Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) rules by a Danish company, ATP Timberland Invest, that sought to own a green-managed forest in North America, Carr explained.

The deal signed this week gives the state of New York a conservation easement – essentially recreation-use rights – to the same property.

It’s all part of a larger land plan that began in 2007 when the Nature Conservancy purchased 161,000 acres that had been held for generations, since the Civil War, by the paper manufacturer Finch, Pruyn.

Recognizing the promise in such a land windfall — which covered property “the size of 11 Manhattans”, the Nature Conservancy undertook a study of both the wildlife and economic needs of the region before deciding how the land should be managed, Carr said.

Surveys showed the area contained “90 mountains, 70 lakes and 415 miles of rivers and streams.”

In evaluating the best way to proceed, the Conservancy first enlisted a team of scientists to determine how best to use and preserve the lands. The team identified plant and animal species in need of protection and identified land that would be best set aside as wilderness. The plan calls for this portion of the original land acquisition — some 65,000 acres of mostly back country — to be turned over the state of New York as well in the coming years, for long term protection as wildlife habitat and for certain recreational uses.

That left 89,000 acres that incorporated woods, fields and 27 communities. That land was sold to ATP Timberland Invest, which was the strongest bidder and shared to Conservancy’s goal of wanting to keep the woodlands managed by certifiable sustainability practices. A deal was arranged to keep the local mill supplied with fiber from the forests.

The Natural Conservancy then set out to meet with officials and leaders in those 27 towns, to determine how local residents would like to use the land. The local wishes ranged from wanting more and better-connected snowmobile trails for themselves and tourists, to expansion room for schools and golf courses.

A plan evolved that incorporated these ideas and provided for keeping the region useful for tourism – a $1 billion annual enterprise in the Adirondacks, essential to the local and state economies. That resulted in turning the 89,000 acres over to New York state, which essentially has recreation rights to the property.

The state hopes that the new easement, which increases the inventory of public access lands and waterways, will keep tourism robust, including the snowmobiling that local towns depend upon during the leaner winter months.

The balancing act: Woodlands saved, but also used for recreation

“Snowmobiling generates $800 million in spending per year in New York State. If you look at a statewide map of the trail system, there’s a hole in Essex County, which means we’ve been missing out on a share of that money as a result. The trails we can now use because of this conservation easement are helping to fill that gap in a big way,” said New York State Snowmobilers’ Association (NYSSA) executive director Dave Perkins.

The arrangement will help link towns by expanding snowmobile trails, and relieve some of them of having to pay for leases to create linkages.

“Indian Lake has been paying to lease snowmobile trails on an annual basis,” said Indian Lake Supervisor Barry Hutchens in a statement.  “Now, with the uncertainty associated with year-to-year leasing erased, we see these trails as permanent and valuable assets that can help our struggling winter economy and our town budget appropriations.”

The new access areas also will serve sportspeople and “leaf peepers,” tourism officials said.

“The Adirondacks are repeatedly picked by AAA as New York’s number one destination for leaf peeping,” said Jim McKenna, a representative of the Adirondack Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. “Many of the lands protected by this agreement are the very places people travel here to see in all of their autumn splendor—helping to increase economic activity to our communities.”

Ten million people visit Adirondacks Park annually, supporting one out of every five jobs in the area, according to the state.

While New York maintains its new conservation land for tourism; a plan is in the works to transfer the remaining portion of the Nature Conservancy property, the part designated to remain as wilderness to New York state as well, Carr said.

This will help fulfill the state’s desire to keep the Hudson Valley watershed pure and uncontaminated, preserving forests that help filter natural water reserves and mitigate climate change.

For now, the remaining 65,000 acres remains in the hands of the Nature Conservancy.